In the comments on the article “Organic isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be: Try Going Local,” a question was directed to me on whether or not the government was actually weakening organic standards.
The answer to that is more complicated than a simple yes, as evidenced by Meredith’s great post on pros and cons of organic. Because the standards are set by a government agency, that agency comes under much political pressure from lobbyists to relax the standards or alter them in such a way to benefit industry and special interests. The bigger the lobbyist, the more the pressure, in many cases. Plus. the organic label nets a higher price, making it a prime target for the food industry.
One such attack on standards nearly went through. Public response and pressure by Organic Consumers Association stepped in to pressure the USDA not to pursue the relaxation of regulations for non-food items, use of antibiotics in dairy cows, and synthetic pesticides.
More Examples of the Attack on Organic Standards
In 2007, there were 38 ingredients of “organic” foods that were questioned by USDA. Companies that used the ingredients were allowed to apply for an exemption. Additionally, a processed food only has to be comprised of 95 percent organic ingredients to qualify for a 100 percent organic label and even food that is only 70 percent organic can be labeled organic. See the labels for yourself on the USDA site. Obviously the USDA fails at basic math.
Organic Standards Are Only Valid if Enforced
Another recent debate over use of the organic label made national headlines. Aurora Dairy sold milk labeled as “organic” and charged more for it, but did not comply with organic standards. Retailers who sold the milk Costco Wholesale Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Safeway Inc. and Wild Oats Markets Inc. sued. The USDA allowed the dairy to keep its organic label, and only put it on probation for a year.
Organic is Just Another Food Label Issue
Labeling issues are a constant battle, and “organic” is just another label. Consider that 2002’s farm bill mandated food to be labeled for country of origin. Six years have passed and this mandate has not been enforced, largely due to industry pressure. Other labels that are currently threatened include natural, grassfed, and rBGH-free.
International Organic Standards vs. U.S. Standards
If enforcing organic standards is a problem within the U.S., the issue is compounded when the food is imported, especially from countries such as China where food that is not organic has been deliberately mislabeled in some cases. It’s a type of fraud that will not likely be detected. Only about two percent of food imports were inspected in the year 2006.
Big Organic Has Changed the Landscape and Meaning of Organic
If you still have an idyllic image of a small family farm producing your organic food with care, forget that. Organic has gone big as shown in this map of “who-owns-who” in the organic food industry. When you see that the players now include companies like Con Agra, Cargill, Coca Cola, Heinz and even M&M Mars, then it’s easy to understand why organic standards are at risk by special interests and big business. Don’t look for those company name on the label, however. The names are still the same ones we are familiar with; Lightlife (ConAgra), M&M Mars (Seeds of Change), Kraft (Back to Nature), Coca Cola (Odwalla). And more.
So, the short answer to the question of if organic standards are being diluted is “yes.” The long answer is that we should ALL question the organic label, make sure policy makers are aware of our concerns, and even opt out of processed foods and find local sources where WE are the food inspectors and can visit the farms and see how our food is produced for ourselves.